A Veteran's Memories
MEMOIRS OF A ROYAL CANADIAN NAVY VETERAN sent by Jeff Cowan
My name is Kenneth Eugene Cowan. I was born Oct 2nd, 1920 in the little lakeside town of Picton Ontario, sometimes known for it?s rum running days across lake Ontario during Prohibition (1927-1932).
I joined the Canadian Navy at the age of 21. All my friends had joined one of the three forces; I joined the Navy because I wanted to see the world.
I enlisted at Kingston, Ontario. The barracks was called HMCS Cataraque. I was recruited as a Coder. My duties were to code and decode wireless messages. I proceeded from there to Basic Training at Toronto (HMCS York) Barracks and stayed there from November 11 1941 to January 7 1942.
I was then ordered to proceed to HMCS Hyacinthe, in the province of Quebec. I specialized in Signal School there from January 8th 1942 to February 23rd 1942. I was then shipped to HMCS Venture Barracks, (now known as Statacona), Halifax Nova Scotia.
From there I was drafted to HMCS Nanaimo (Corvette 101) on the 17th of March 1941. This was my first ship, a Corvette built in Vancouver British Columbia. It had transited the Panama Canal in the fall of 1941.
THE SINKING OF THE S.S. PORT NICHOLSON
AND THE S.S. CHEROKEE
The following is an actual recount of one of the convoy sailings we were involved in during the war. The story recounts the sinking of two ships, both by a German U-Boat with a tragic loss of life.
June 14 1942 found us in convoy outbound from the port of Halifax Nova Scotia, Canada. We were joined with a group of six merchant ships on their first leg of their journey headed south for Boston. The ships were arranged in two columns of three. One column was led by the merchant ship S.S. Cathart, with S.S. Port Nicholson and Pan York behind. The other column of merchant ships was led by S.S. Malcrest, with Norlago and Cherokee behind.
Port Nicholson was carrying war supplies and trucks bound for the Pacific. The Cherokee was a fast freighter just down from Iceland carrying 41 army enlisted men, 4 Russian naval officers, and an army air force pilot, all headed for the US.
The convoy had a large escort with a Destroyer in the lead and four Corvettes. Nanaimo was positioned on the starboard side of the convoy.
We were frequently called to practice action stations during the day. Around midnight on June 15th we were again called to action stations. My station is on the aft anti-aircraft gun. I grumble as I rise to answer the call and the thought of another practice. Only this time things are different. Our main 4-inch deck gun is firing Star shells into the center of the Merchant convoy. The other escorts are doing the same. The scene is as light as day. I?m very scared. We search the seas desperately for a sign of a U-Boat. Two torpedoes have hit the S.S. Port Nicholson and she is firing flares.
The Nanaimo is on the starboard side of the convoy and we turn to cross the convoy to search for the U-Boat. As I look astern I spot the troopship S.S. Cherokee passing 500 yards astern. Suddenly a load boom followed by two huge explosions can be seen on the troopship. Two torpedoes have hit her. The color of the explosions is a brilliant red and blue light as the torpedoes hit. The trooper ship sinks almost immediately taking half of her ships crew and the soldiers down with her. The Nicholson remains afloat and her crew abandons ship using the Jacob ladders and lifeboats. It is all a very eerie sight 100 miles out and backlight by the lights of Boston.
We were detailed to stay and pick up survivors from the Nicholson. The rest of the convoy was ordered to sail on. We rescued her whole crew, including the ship?s captain and the convoy?s commodore. The rest of the convoy was ordered to sail on. The next morning found the Nicholson still afloat. It was decided to send a boarding party over to see if she could be salvaged. Included in the boarding party were our 1st Lieutenant, 1st Petty officer seaman, a regular seaman and our 2nd signalman. From the crew of the merchantman we sent the ship?s chief engineer and the convoy commodore. The Nicholson was easy to board as the Jacobs ladders were still over the side of the ship. We were signaled to radio for a tug to take the Nicholson in tow. We could see the boarding party walking the open decks of the Nicholson.
At about the same time the wind came up and whipped up the seas. The rough seas proved too much for her weakened bulkheads and she suddenly took the death plunge for the bottom. The boarding party rushed for the ladders and got into the lifeboat. We close in tight to rescue the boarding party. The suction of the Nicholson going under overturned the lifeboat. We lost our first Lieutenant and two members of the merchant ship. Our signalman (from Truro Nova Scotia) went down with the ship when his legs got caught in the rigging. Fortunately he was wearing rubbers boots and these were blown off him when the ships boilers exploded. He struggled to the surface and was saved. I?ll never forget the death rattle of a ship when it goes down. We auctioned off our first lieutenants? kit a few days latter, as was the custom. We landed all of Nicholson?s survivors in Boston the next day.
About two weeks later we retraced our route over that same track. A US navy blimp was dropping flares and there were bodies floating in the water. They were bloated bodies of uniformed US soldiers wearing life jackets, some partially eaten. We didn?t any pick up. Such were the casualties of the war at sea.
The crew looks over the rail as S.S. Port Nicholson takes the death plunge.
For related reading, U-Boats Offshore / When Hitler Struck America by Edwin P Hoyt; Stein & Day publishers copyright 1978;